Too much nitrogen is flowing into Charlotte Harbor

By Betsy Calvert, The Daily Sun Staff Writer, Nov 1, 2021.

Charlotte Harbor is environmentally impaired, and the state has deferred an action plan to local officials.

Charlotte County’s new Water Quality Manager Brendan Moody shared the status of the county’s waterways with commissioners recently and said he will be advocating in early 2022 for the state to create a basin management action plan.

Moody focused on the issue of too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. These are elements of fertilizer and sewage. Pollution looks worse for nitrogen than phosphorus, he said.

“Exceedances are far more pronounced for nitrogen than what we’re seeing for phosphorus,” he said.

He referred to charts showing the amount and frequency with which water samples exceed the maximum allowed levels of these two pollutants between 2014 and 2019.

One likely consequence of the high nitrogen in Charlotte Harbor is the recent reported loss of large amounts of sea grass. Sea grass is an indicator of water quality. Too much nitrogen leads to over growth of algae. Algae then blocks sunlight which kills the sea grass. Without sea grass, fish and other wildlife can fail.

The state Department of Environmental Protection evaluates bodies of water around the state. It first identified problems with too much iron and bacteria in 2004, DEP press secretary Alexandra Kuchta said. In 2009, DEP identified too much chlorophyll as a problem — also an indicator of sewage and fertilizer.

In 2020, the harbor was labelled impaired for nitrogen and phosphorus, although levels have been high for many years, according to data Moody presented.

Moody told commissioners DEP has dramatically bumped up its evaluation schedule across the state this year from every five to every two years. It’s a long process that can result in a body being labeled impaired, and then total maximum daily loads being set for pollutants such as nitrogen. The state can also define a detailed restoration plan, Kuchta said.

In the case of Charlotte Harbor, she said, the state is relying on the Punta Gorda-based nonprofit, Coastal and Heartland National Estuary Partnership, (CHNEP) to create an alternative restoration plan. CHNEP did not respond for comment, but is responsible for much of the water sampling in the area. CHNEP is also coordinating a long-term study of how to restore natural freshwater water flow from the Babcock wildlife management areas across Interstate 75 and U.S. 41 into Charlotte Harbor.

In a state-run program in north Florida, DEP has evaluated regions around the prized fresh water springs, which are becoming polluted. DEP has published reports that calculate how much of the problem for each spring area is caused by sewer systems vs. septic systems vs. cattle grazing vs. overall development.

The state prioritizes which region on which to focus, said Moody, who worked previously for the state’s southern water district supply regulators on the east coast. He expects the DEP to hold hearings this spring on how it plans to set priorities, and he will participate for the county to promote its interests, he said.

The sampling areas include water along Manasota Key, Charlotte Harbor, Peace River and Myakka River. Much of the sampling along the Peace River is from the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Authority, Moody said.

Moody is working on adding sampling sites along the mid-county canals, which appear to be receiving runoff from North Port’s Cocoplum canal.

“In terms of actual land draining into Charlotte Harbor, there’s not a lot of sampling,” Moody said.

He expects to start the new sampling sites before the next rainy season.

Commission Joe Tiseo asked whether the county is keeping up with its commitment to test water near neighborhoods where septic systems are being replaced with sewers.

Moody said he would bring the results of that testing, by Charlotte County Utilities, to the next presentation.

Commissioner Chris Constance said he is frustrated by how long it takes to see results and analysis of water testing.

“Waiting months and even years to find out, ‘Oh, by the way, you’ve been impaired for three years,’ How is that informing us?” Constance said.

Moody ended his presentation saying he did not want to be only gloom and doom.

“I don’t want to end on this note that it’s apocalyptic,” he said. “There’s a lot of work that’s been done.”

Some patches of sea grass are growing near Hog Island for the first time in 15 years, Moody said, citing information from the Coastal and Heartland National Estuaries Program. Hog Island is on the north side of Charlotte Harbor where the Peace and Myakka rivers join.

Other positive steps, Moody said, include the septic conversion projects underway in neighborhoods. Also, he noted, commissioners recently approved spending an additional $9.45 million in the near future to remove the further lower levels of nitrogen from processed sewage that is now distributed to golf courses and subdivisions for irrigation.

Kuchta said DEP has provided funding to the county for the septic-to-sewer projects and for sewer expansion and improvement projects.